Digital transformation on a clean slate

By Nonso Jideofor, design researcher and Public Digital Network member.

When we talk about working from a clean slate, we mean starting from scratch, free of the legacies of former eras or failed projects which might obstruct the flow of new ideas.

We might equate digital transformation projects, as new ventures for governments and organisations, to working from a clean slate.

However, for those in the public sector introducing new projects for governance reform, the reality is that the slate they are working from is rarely clean.

Between activities like landscape assessments, stakeholder mapping or even starting to drive and implement the digital transformation agenda, we are bound to discover that the slate we are working from is littered with the remnants of obstacles, failed projects, and existing behaviours and attitudes.

The Digi Link team working in Nigeria in August
The Digi Link team in Nigeria in August

Digital transformation in action: Digi Link

Late last year, Public Digital and ACIOE began leading a digital transformation programme in Edo State Nigeria, Digi Link. Digi Link aims to build the digital capability of The Edo State government to deliver user-centred, effective, inclusive, and sustainable public services to citizens, particularly for women, girls, and the economically marginalised.

The engagement kicked off with a discovery and landscape assessment. While this landscape was indicative of many opportunities, it also revealed the potential for a ‘messy slate’ for digital transformation.

Working from a 'messy slate'

As I’ll explore in this post, the idea of a ‘messy slate’ is in fact neither good nor bad. In some instances, the stuff cluttering up your slate can take the form of knowledge and learnings that work in your favour.

As such, digital practitioners shouldn’t endeavour to wipe the slate clean. Instead, rather like a skilled artist, the task is to work with the material at hand and try to create something new.

For those working on digital transformation in the public sector, here are a number of things - inspired by our work with Edo State in Nigeria - that might be knocking around on your working slate

1. Existing ways of working

Digital transformation isn’t just transferring existing analogue systems into digital systems. It is a complete system change.

New technology won’t alter existing ways of working - the people and processes that operate within the institution - that are not equipped to handle that change. Like cases of public servants allowing new computers to gather dust and deferring back to using paper and files, the problem is ultimately one of culture: People’s existing ways of working do not accommodate new technology, so change isn’t happening.

Even if you do not realise it, the clean slate of your digital transformation project will be littered with the existing ways of working that operate within your institution.

Which is why, rather than simply procuring new technology, digital transformation means looking carefully at your existing ways of working, and considering how these can be adapted for the change you want to see. It means thinking about both design - what a system looks like in context, and delivery - how people can be persuaded to adopt it.

In our work in Edo State, that meant resisting the urge to move entire ministries and agencies' online in a single sweep. Instead, we identified where and how technology, when introduced, would have leverage. Rather than pursuing a ‘shiny’ information service, we looked at ways to increase citizens’ access to information in rural communities.

2. Legacy of failed attempts

The significant size of government budgets, and in turn funds available for technology spending, make them attractive to vendors and suppliers. And governments, aiming to modernise and enhance their digital capabilities, may sometimes explore various products and services offered by technology vendors.

This exploration could be part of an initial foray into digital solutions or an effort to replace outdated systems. However, there is a possibility that, despite good intentions, these initiatives might not always succeed due to a lack of deep understanding or intuition in digital and user centred approach. Such scenarios could potentially contribute to a record of less successful attempts in the ongoing journey of digital transformation.

Rather than representing ‘mess’, this legacy is in fact a useful record to refer to when planning future transformation projects. If nothing else, it shows stakeholders how not to do digital transformation, and demonstrates the need for more than simply good intentions in a transformation project.

A helpful diagnosis to work out whether you are dealing with good intentions only is asking what the purpose of the offering is and what it delivers in practice. Does the government have the capacity to manage and utilise all it promises today? What does that transformation journey entail?

The opportunity lies around striking the right balance between the allure of running an end-to-end technology and digital solution today or taking a more meaningful piecemeal approach.

3. Fatigue from failed attempts

As indicated above, it is highly unlikely that you are the first to offer governance and public service delivery improvements to colleagues in the public sector.

The architects of previous failed attempts at digital transformation will be fatigued, and may struggle to see the potential in new projects. It is safe to assume that some part of the system is tired and unenthusiastic about future progress.

These attitudes are another - much less helpful - element of ‘mess’ to the slate.

To counter them, show from the onset that you understand this feeling of disillusionment, and seek creative ways to build excitement and relationships. The best way to counter disillusion is to build capabilities: Show people quickly that they are able to do what they could not previously do.

In the case of The Edo State government, we have been helping civil servants learn rapid problem solving skills using user-centred methods like design sprints. We have adapted this timeboxed and intensive process used by user-centred teams to tackle design problems, for policymakers to approach policy formulation and implementation at pace - addressing social problems. We have taken it a step further, with a focus on getting participants to become facilitators of the process as quickly as possible.

4. Urgent priorities

There will always be ongoing government priorities and agendas with which your digital transformation should align.

On the one hand, these urgent priorities have the tendency to constrain the design process. On the other hand, they offer the potential for quick wins.

For example, one of the projects we commenced to help showcase the gains of digital in Edo State could have dragged on beyond the 3 month target, or, if made a priority, it could have been finished sooner. Given that there was an opportunity to showcase progress in 3 months at a state annual event (Alaghodaro), we set key milestones around that time.

This provided us with a chance to build momentum with State investors, funders and citizens.

The Digi Link team working in Nigeria in August

5. Misconceptions about digital

Colleagues involved in digital transformation projects will have certain pre-existing assumptions about what the project entails, and not all of them will be accurate.

These misconceptions can provide extra ‘messiness’ to the slate of digital transformation:

The terms we use to communicate about digital technology mean different things to those without a technology background. Some examples are design, research (user, design, ethnographic), discovery, and prototyping.

Digital often takes the fall for a ‘societal divide’ caused by the issues in our system and structure. In reality, the divide is not digital in origin but can in fact be exacerbated by it. We will be unable to fix the ‘digital divide’ without acknowledging and addressing the many layers of ‘societal divide’ that precede it, such as gender, social and economic.

For example, digital identity initiatives have the potential to bring citizens’ ease when accessing government benefits, health insurance or filing for taxes. However, a blanket design and rollout of digital that is not intentional about equity can mean that the most privileged groups access the benefits of the new system, and leave the burdens (not benefits) of the systems to the marginalised - often women, girls, and rural communities. This can be due to their lack of access to devices, internet and platforms, their unfamiliarity with the appropriate channels, or factors such as digital literacy, mistrust and so much more.

People often think of digital transformation as an additional task on top of existing projects. As emphasised above, digital is not a project that can be separated off from other institutional agendas. In fact, it is all-encompassing, and whether digital transformation can be made a part of existing programmes will determine its success in the long run.

Confronting messiness

In the last few months, as part of our Digi Link project, we have learned more about the state of play for digital transformation in Edo State and the potential and challenges for delivering results at scale.

In effect, having identified and confronted the ‘messy’ components of our slate, the team are able to move onto the next phase: Working our way through an iterative approach for ‘learning by doing’ with our collaborators in the public service.

A messy slate may feel that it is slowing down a project. It may feel easier, and more energising, to overlook the mess and press on with your new ideas.

However, as we’re seeing in our work with Edo State, tackling the inevitable roster of existing obstacles and legacies is the best way to guarantee effective and long-lasting transformation.

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